Updated: January 26, 2011, 1:37 AM
CHERRY CREEK — The smoldering remains of one of Western New York's most notable buildings served as a gathering place Tuesday for awestruck Southern Tier residents who planned their winters around the Cockaigne Ski Area.
The ski site's main lodge had been proudly known as the Austrian Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair in New York City. Nearly all of the ornate wooden structure, purchased in 1965 and reconstructed the next year at the ski facility, was destroyed Monday night in a towering fire that could be seen for up to five miles.
Because of the "extensive damage," fire inspectors from the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Office, who finished digging through the icy, charred beams of the lodge's remains Tuesday evening, said the cause might never be determined.
Officials said they don't suspect foul play in the fire, which started in the lodge's ski rental area.
Owner Jack Van Scoter declined to comment Tuesday about the fire, which hit at the peak of ski season, or about his plans for of the ski area. A damage estimate had not been determined, and whether the ski area was insured remained unclear.
"It's the focal point of this whole area," said John Carson, 45, of Eden, who as a child spent each cold season in a winter home across the road from the ski area. "It was home to a lot of people, a lot of friendships, and that was what Cockaigne was all about."
Their beloved winter area offered 1,100-foot slopes and affordable prices. But at about 10:20 p.m. Monday, a Chautauqua County plow driver noticed flames in the back portion of the two-story lodge.
The first of the 150 responding firefighters, from the Cherry Creek Fire Department and six other companies, went into a defensive stance as they poured water on the blaze to make sure the signature arches on the building's top didn't fall dangerously.
"Me and my son had to come here [Monday night], for whatever reason, until we couldn't stand to watch [it burn]," Carson said.
The remains were still smoldering when Tim Cobb, a Cassadaga Fire Department chief, arrived at noon Tuesday to relieve the first shift of workers. He described the fire as "very large," and one neighbor said firefighters told him they were pumping 3,000 gallons per minute from tankers and a nearby stream.
Absent Tuesday were the once-regular busloads of high school students from ski clubs at Southwestern, Falconer and Fredonia high schools.
In their place was a nonstop chain of vehicles carrying visitors who wanted to see the unfortunate ruins first hand.
"It was open 106 days [a year]. I was out there 101 days," said Steven Cardot, 19, a Forestville High graduate who worked at Cockaigne. "Snowboarding was my life. I can't do anything now. I've got no snowboard, and I can't afford to drive to [other ski areas]."
Cardot and Nate Mages, 19, looped around the cordoned-off perimeter where firefighters blasted the smoldering wood and Van Scoter worked with fire officials to try to figure out where the fire started.
Upon walking up to the ruins, Mages recognized the equipment and rental room "where we sat every day." He emerged with blackened hands and, most importantly to him, the shovel he used to dig and pack snow to make snowboarding jumps.
"My shovel's still there," Cardot said. "I want to get it. I want to put it on my wall."
Cardot's carefree memories were like those of many who gathered Tuesday. On the front of the lodge, the sign reading "Gemutlich" — German for "agreeably pleasant" — remained largely intact.
"I grew up skiing here," said Mike Eaker, 53, who first worked at Cockaigne as a lift attendant in 1976 and has worked ski patrol since 1980. "My family skied here. My kids skied here. They were family here, wherever they came from, whether it be Cleveland, Toronto, or any other ski towns. They were family."
Two members of that family said Tuesday that they've been drawn to the area for 37 years because of the care skiers took for each other.
"Everyone here kind of watched out for one another," said Eden resident Carol Wagner. "It's been a way of life for a lot of people. It was a wonderful place. It will be sorely missed."
Wagner, whose son grew up skiing on Cockaigne's three slopes and 17 trails before he reached the Junior Olympics, said she hopes Van Scoter can find some way to operate the slope again.
Carson said Van Scoter operated the ski area's rental stations and restaurant/bar area with a personal touch.
"You'll see him running through, picking up plates after lunch," Carson said. "He knows all of his employees."
"He's pretty upset," said Carol Wagner, another Eden resident.
News Staff Reporter Gene Warner contributed to this report.
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